Sermon: What is Truth

There’s a great movie called A Few Good Men. It’s one of the few movies that Diane and I agree upon as a classic film that we both want to watch almost every time it comes on TV. For me it’s because one of the stars is Jack Nicholson, who I think is truly one of the greatest actors of our time. And it also stars Tom Cruise, whom Diane likes for more obvious reasons.

            The climactic scene of the movie comes when young prosecuting attorney Lieutenant Caffee (played by Tom Cruise) angrily demands of his witness, “I want the truth!” To which his calculating witness, Marine Corps Colonel Jessup (Jack Nicholson) screams back at him, “You can’t handle the truth!”

            That verbal exchange is the ironic crucible of the movie because the reality is that Colonel Jessup had been singularly bent on subjugating the truth as part of a cover-up regarding an accidental homicide that happened on base as the result of a hazing (Code Red) order he gave. Lieutenant Caffee, by contrast, had been in dogged pursuit of the truth from the beginning.

            When I read again this scripture passage in John, I was reminded of that movie. The military-wise Pilate would have certainly understood this cinematic exchange as well as anyone.

            Because the critical moment in this Gospel story happens right at the end of the interaction, when Pilate asks Jesus, “So, you are a king?”

            And Jesus answers, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone one who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” 

            Whereby Pilate replies – out of indignation or cynicism or curiosity – “What is truth?”

            It seems to me that those two encounters – one cinematic and one Gospel – represent the two questions confronting us today: “What is truth?” And, “How can we handle the truth?”

            I’ve been doing a lot of research and reading on the subject of `truth’ over the past several days and have finally come to the conclusion that “What is truth?” is a really, really good question. Indeed, it is a question for the ages.

            And over the some 2,000 years since Pilate asked that question I’m not quite sure how much progress we’ve made toward the ultimate answer.

            The Dark ages didn’t shed much light on the subject. But the Renaissanceprobably brought some new insights through art and philosophy. Then the Enlightenment period strove to probe more deeply questions of nature and metaphysics. More recently the modern era brought empirical tools to bear on nearly every question humankind had ever asked, and certainly found answers for many.[i]

            And yet now, here in the post-modern era – the Information Age when human knowledge is supposedly doubling about every 13 months or so – we still don’t seem to have a clear answer with regard to Pilate’s question: What is truth?

            Most post-modern philosophers will tell you that there is no such thing as a universal truth. Truth is in the eye of the beholder, so to speak; which is to say that `truth’ is a relative thing. What is considered `truth’ according to one individual might be entirely divergent to the understanding of `truth’ for another. Both perspectives, says the post-modernist, can be equally valid at once. Conversely, what may be true for one is by no means necessarily true for another. In fact, many people in this day and age can apparently hold multiple, contradictory truths and not be distressed in the least by their incongruities.

            As one colleague resignedly observed, “Art, critical thinking, and scientific experimentation: these are the human means by which we try to make sense of the world. If we cannot gain insight into a matter by ever more deeply probing inquiry, then it must be the case that no answer exists. That is where we find ourselves today.”[ii]

            Cutting edge scientific Quantum theory even suggests that multiple universes may exist at once: alternate universes with alternate realities yielding alternate facts supporting alternate truths. Is it any wonder that, in spite of all the scientific advances of recent decades, we are apparently not measurably closer to discovering the ultimate truth of the universe?

            Stephen Hawking was once quoted in an interview as saying, “If we do discover a theory of everything . . . it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we would truly know the mind of God.”

            A short time later, however, when asked in a subsequent interview about his provocative statement, Hawking back-peddled, asserting that he had only been speaking metaphorically and, furthermore, that he was an avowed atheist.

            Shortly before his death, Hawking confirmed, “I think the universe was spontaneously created out of nothing, according to the laws of science. If you accept, as I do, that the laws of nature are fixed, then it doesn’t take long to ask: What role is there for God?” Hawking concluded, “If you like, you can say that the laws are the work of God, but that is more a definition of God than proof of his existence.”

            Such could be said as well, I suppose, of Quantum theory – or any other scientific endeavor for that matter – of which working postulates seem to be continually in flux.

            Pilate would have probably felt right at home with postmodernism.

            The fact is that, very few of us can intuit the complexities of the human condition more acutely than Aristotle or Plato or Des Cartes; or peer into the human heart more deeply than Nietzche, Kant or Derrida; or probe the mysteries of the universe with more brilliance than Newton, Einstein or Hawking.

            And yet, what has eluded so many great minds through the ages, we believe, is imminently within the grasp of the simplest of minds.[iii]

            Because we know that ultimate Truth cannot be proven by scientific observation. It is not attainable through human reason. It cannot be revealed by the most glorious depictions of art. It is not a matter of relative perceptions of the individual. It can never be asserted by the mere verification of facts. Nor is Truth the acquisition of political conquest.

            Rather Truth, as we know it – as we have experienced it – is a Person: Jesus the Christ. The Incarnation of the very One who existed before the Big Bang; who drafted the very laws that structure the universe; who created all the mysteries that are, and holds them together in his hand, and one day will reveal those mysteries to all.

            This is what we avow: God is the Source of all Truth; and Jesus Christ is Truth incarnate.

            And the apprehension of such ultimate Truth is the gift of faith.

            As one said, faith is the gift that “makes the humblest person content and answers the most confounding questions of great thinkers. It is illogical, impenetrable, and not testable. Human reason is blinded by its searing glow, yet its beauty spreads revealingly through the prism of a believer’s heart.”[iv]

            The great English Particular Baptist preacher of the 19th century, Charles Spurgeon, proclaimed, “Truth must enter the soul, penetrate and saturate it, or else it is of no value. Doctrines held as a matter of creed are like bread in the hand, which ministers no nourishment to the frame; but doctrine accepted by the heart, is as food digested, which, by assimilation, sustains and builds up the body. In us truth must be a living force, an active energy, and indwelling reality, a part of the woof and warp of our being. If it be in us, we cannot henceforth part with it.”

            “A Christian can die,” said Charles Spurgeon, “but he cannot deny the truth.”

            So, now that we believe that we know what Truth is—How can we `handle’ the Truth?

            How do we, as Christians, strive to walk in the Truth?

            Reformed theologian William Placher reflected, “Most people, in cultures where Christianity has been the dominant religious influence, assume that they know roughly what the word “God” means. Whether or not they believe in God, whether or not they find God an attractive notion, they do have an idea of God, an idea that tends to center on power. God is all powerful, omnipotent, in charge.” Placher reminds us, however, that, “The Christian gospel . . . starts its understanding of God from a different place. The one who is presented in the Christian gospel as God’s self-revelation wanders with nowhere to lay his head, washes the feet of his disciples like a servant,” and is despised and rejected by others.”[v]

            Truth is not found in political power or military might, but rather in vulnerable love. Vulnerable love is the power of Christ as King. Truth is not an intellectual concept, but rather a lived experience, which is expressed in love and revealed to the hearts of those who have faith.

            “Everyone who belongs to the Truth listens to my voice,” Jesus told Pilate. But Pilate’s ears were closed to the Truth.

            The other day, Diane was telling me about a Session meeting she moderated last week at the Morrisville Church. And the clerk of that Session shared an experience with the group that she recently had. Apparently Morrisville had just had a retreat at their church that was facilitated by a guest leader – a clergywoman – that they’d brought in to lead the retreat. At one point, the retreat leader went up to the clerk of Session, and as she shook her hand, said to her, “I sense that you have a heavy heart.”

            The clerk nodded affirmatively, and then told the retreat leader that some 36 years ago she had lost her baby girl. Around the same time her husband suffered a terrible, disfiguring accident. So, `yes,’ all those things were weighing heavy on her heart right then. The retreat leader said, “You have to let your baby go.”

            The clerk of Session then recounted to the group, that the next morning Jesus came to her. He came to her with his arms extended. And he said, “It’s okay. You can give your baby to me.” The clerk let go of her baby – at long last – and for the first time in many years had a sense of real peace return to her heart.

            The Truth is found in Jesus Christ, who was – and continues to be – Emmanuel, God-with-Us, the Word-Made-Flesh; the One who came into the world to show us the face of the Divine by being fully human; by sharing all the uncertainties, the joys, and the sorrows that we know in this life. And as we seek to understand – and live and walk in – the Truth we have found in Christ, we will be set free to discover God’s will for a future wide open to possibilities.             “If you abide in my word,” Jesus said, “you are truly my disciples, and you will know the Truth, and the Truth

[i] Willimon, William H., “What Is Truth?”, November 26, 2006,  Pulpit Resource,

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Placher, William C., Narrative of a Vulnerable God, Westminster John Knox Press, 1994.